History of Freak Shows


The exhibition of freaks, monstrosities or marvels of nature were essential components of travelling exhibitions in Europe and America throughout the Victorian period. What was saleable as far as the freak was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable.

The showman was an essential component and it was the relationship between the presenter and the exhibit that produced the freak show. The exhibit could not be seen before a show and therefore needed the showman to market their particular attractions to the curiosity seeking public.

An essential part of the telling of the tale consisted of wonderfully and medically impossible reasons to explain to the audience the history of the person they were going to see. The most popular attractions were oddities with extraordinary talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities. A famous example of this type of act and sort were Siamese twins, so called because of Chang and Eng, the original twins were born in Siam in 1811 and brought to America in 1829. Midgets were frequently advertised as being much older than they actually were. Hirsute or bearded attractions would range from Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy and the famous fake show Hairy Mary from Borneo, which was in reality a monkey.

Hirsute faced ladies were a common feature in the nineteenth century and famous names included Leonine the Lion Faced Lady, Alice Bounds the Bear Lady and Annie Jones who appeared with Barnum and Bailey's Circus.

The fairground created a world of extremes, where largeness in size, hairiness in body and the more miniature or large the stature was celebrated and sought after. This reversal of the norms in fashion and bodily perfection is never more exemplified than in the case of 'Mary Ann Bevan - the Ugliest Woman in the World, who was a star for many years at Pickard’s Grand Panopticon in Glasgow and also appeared with Tom Norman until she presented her own show on the travelling fairs. According to Tom Norman, Mary Ann's features became so deformed after the shock of seeing her husband drop dead at her feet just as he was entering the front door of their cottage.

Mary Ann Bevan continued to appear on the fairgrounds until the 1930s and threatened legal action against any act daring to say she was uglier than herself! Her career as a side show curiosity was immensely profitable and during a four week stay in Glasgow in 1920 the show brought in £662 3s. 6d on the door and a further £48 from the selling of 5000 postcards and 6333 books.

Other nineteenth century exhibits included Patrick O’Brien the Irish Giant, a regular act at St Bartholomew's Fair and Sam Taylor the Ilkeston Giant. Examples of physical extremities included The Fat Boy of Peckham and Sacco-Homann the famous fasting man and such was the popularity of fat women shows that five alone could be found at Hull Fair, the largest travelling fair in the United Kingdom in the 1890s.

The presentation of human oddities in the Victorian era changed dramatically with P.T. Barnum and his famous attraction Tom Thumb. When Barnum arrived in England in 1844 the British showmen were amazed that he was hoping to attract so much money for simply exhibiting a dwarf. Midgets had appeared on travelling fairs for hundreds of years. Thomas Frost in his account of Bartholomew Fair cites many examples of this activity and Simon Paap was presented to Prince Regent in 1815 and was a famous attraction at Bartholomew Fair.

However, Barnum in the shape of Tom Thumb, created a novelty act that became one of the greatest attractions of the Victorian Era. Barnum’s talents lay in his ability to create fantasy out of nothing and with the creation of his American Museum and the exhibiting of the Fegee mermaid, the famous What Is It and Joice Heth the 161 year old nurse of George Washington, his talents as a showmen were without equal.

In spite of this, the discovery or creation of Tom Thumb surpassed all of his previous achievements and profits. Barnum created a novelty act that would become one of the greatest attractions of the Victorian Era. Charles Stratton, or Tom Thumb,  was eleven years old when first exhibited by Barnum in 1843. Barnum changed his nationality from American to English, he changed his age from four to eleven years old, and his name from Charles Stratton to General Tom Thumb. When he left the States for his European tour he became an instant attraction and was presented to Queen Victoria on three separate occasions. The effect of Barnum on the English showmen and the public was immense and freak exhibits spread across a range of exhibitions including shop fronts, penny gaffs, music halls and travelling fairs. Fairgrounds appear to be the main venue for such novelties but the growth of the music hall and shop front show or penny gaffs provided additional outlets.

Dwarf and midget exhibitors such as Major Mite, Harold Pyott (the English Tom Thumb) and Anita the Living Doll followed in the example of Charles Stratton and became highly successful side show novelties operating on the fairs and the music halls. Midgets were presented in stylised format with the items of everyday domesticity such as tables, chairs and wardrobes acting as props to add to the contrast in size. They were the most prized of all the fairground exhibitions and Harold Pyott who exhibited until the 1920s, would challenge anyone to produce a man as small as himself. By the 1930s midget shows or Lilliputian wonders as they were advertised were all the rage and midget strong men, midget dare devil drivers and midget conjurers all would appear as a League of Nations under the same show.

Two latter day midgets were Davy the Irish Leprechaun who exhibited in the 1960s and Johnnie Osbourne the Wee McGregor who continued appearing at Newcastle in the 1980s. Since the introduction of the Welfare State, economic necessity was no longer a factor in freak show exhibition. However, both Davy and Johnnie expressed a desire to be exhibited on the fairground.

Many of the shows that appeared during the reign of Victoria were quickly superseded by the latest novelty or wonder of the age. However, the waxworks display with the freak show was perhaps the most continually popular travelling type of exhibition in the nineteenth century.

Tom Norman, 'The Silver King', was the English counterpart of Barnum. He exhibited his performers in shop fronts, on his travelling fair or acted as an agent for the acts and booked them in venues such as the Panopticon in Glasgow and Nottingham Goose Fair or his penny gaff in Croydon. Norman started his career as a sideshow exhibitor in the 1870s when he managed Eliza Jenkins the Skeleton Woman, the Balloon Headed Baby and a whole range of freak show attractions. However, as he stated in his autobiography "you could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the tale that you told."

By 1883 Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man, perhaps one of the most famous exhibits of the time. Tom Norman’s career continued after the Elephant Man and over the next ten year he became involved with managing Mary Anne Bevan the World’s Ugliest Woman, John Chambers the Armless Carpenter and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady.

Freaks shows were also essential components of circus shows in America such as the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey’s sideshow. These stars were immortalised in Todd Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which featured Daisy and Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck, Prince Randian the Living Torso and Harry Earle the midget who falls in love with Cleopatra the trapeze artist.

Performing animals were also exhibited alongside the same lines as the human exhibits with extreme size being desirable features or the perfection of the miniature. In the case of the Flea Circus, the show itself could be seen as either a performance show, with other believing it to be an optical illusion operated by the showman.
Flea circuses died out on the fairground due to a shortage of human fleas necessary for the operation of the show but its history as a side show attraction dates back to the early 1800s. The last thirty years has seen the eventual disappearance of the fairground show.

Living novelty acts continued on carnivals and midways in America and on the travelling fairs in the United Kingdom for most of the twentieth century. Tommy Twinkle Toes Jacobsen the armless wonder was a headline attraction on variety hall and travelling shows and Hal Denver the son of Tom Norman appeared with his knife throwing act on the Ed Sullivan Show in America. However, for the British side show performers their heyday was the Victorian period when the performers were household names and patronised by the general public and royalty alike.

See also our section on Showmen and Performers

For further information relating to the American freak show tradition please see the following sources:

Bogdon, Robert, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Fun and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988

Drimmer, Frederick, Very Special People. New York: Amjon Publishing, 1973

Fiedler, Leslie, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978

Fitzsimons, Raymond, Barnum in London. London: Geoffrey Bles Ltd, 1969

Jay, Ricky, Jay's Journal of Anomalies. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001

Norman, Tom, The Penny Showman: Memoirs of Tom Norman "Silver King". Privately published, 1985

Saxon, A. H. P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man. New York and London: New York University Press. 1989

Thomson, Rosemary Garland, (ed) Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York and London: New York University Press, 1996